Esteban Writes from Colorado

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Where we’ve been:
Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest
The Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park
Fort Collins, Denver, Boulder
Arapaho National Forest
Colorado Springs
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Pike National Forest
Salida
Curecanti National Recreation Area
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Colorado National Monument
Mcinnis Canyons National Conservation Area

Rocky Mountain National Park

We drive up the high road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The 2 lane highway has almost no rails and has menacing cliffs and scary switchbacks. Clouds are close and the air is thin. One mistake and the car could fly down. It’s terrifying to imagine what would happen if a car would go over.
We make it to the Alpine Visitor Center. There’s a trail by the parking lot that takes you to the top of a hill, and we start the slow ascent. The wind picks up soon and the lack of oxygen makes my heart beat faster. That’s the only thing I can hear. Except for, suddenly, the sound of brakes and a car crash below us. We turn around and see the commotion in the parking lot below: a car veered to the side, ant-sized people moving about, and a large, black SUV accelerating in the wrong lane after the crash. Its tires screech loudly, it crosses the parking lot and heads towards the intersection and the highways at 50 mph. Without control it hits the curb with a loud thump that, because of the distance, comes to us a fraction of a second delayed, and crosses the road to the other side. It hits the curb, and flips in the air, once, beyond the shoulder and onto the steep mountain, then twice as it lifts a giant cloud of dust, and miraculously stops before going further down. The sound is all wind again, and below we can only see the emergency in silence.
Aut and I are in shock. We’re halfway up the trail. What do we do? Do we just ignore the whole thing and go up and see the view above? Or do we go down, stand along the accident as more of the curious people standing in the way of others who can help? We finally decide to go down to make sure everyone is okay. Luckily, it seems, everyone is miraculously alive. The surprise of witnessing the event exhausts us.

Emily and Jamie’s house / Boulder and Tea Overdose

The rest of our time in Colorado hasn’t been that dramatic. We spent some days at our friend Emily’s house outside of Denver, where we went because I had some stand up shows. Emily and her husband Jamie’s place makes me miss having one. Every corner is covered with pieces of their hobbies and the things they love. Every corner has a purpose. She likes plants and painting, so there’s a small jungle by the window, paintings on the walls, and a studio where she works. Jamie likes making cocktails and records, so he has a mini bar and a little corner with a record player. Their patio has a pergola they built together. In the basement they take delicate care of their fish tank. Every corner is a bit messy, not from carelessness, but from its constant use. Their house is an adult playground and I love it. We met Emily in Indonesia, where we lived for a year, so it was nice to remember how strange it was to live in our wild, chaotic city. Samarinda is a town on the eastern side of the island of Borneo, fueled by irresponsible mining, drug trafficking, and limited access to beer. We reminisce about the several times we left town to travel elsewhere in the country, especially to the tiny island of Derawan, which is the most beautiful place in the world and no one knows about it, so please keep it cool and do not share that information.

We visit Boulder, which smells like cotton candy and privilege. I thought I would like the city, but the income disparity between the city and the rest of the planet has created not a bubble but a diamond of isolation. It feels so exclusive and distant. I had two shows there and the crowd didn’t seem able to laugh at themselves. Who knows? Maybe Boulder is great and I’m just resentful that my shows there didn’t go that great. It’s just unbelievable to think people wouldn’t like me. What?! I’m adorable, Boulder. YOU are the problem.

We did enjoy one thing about Boulder: the Celestial Seasonings tea plant is there, so we went and visit it. They offer free samples and let you tour the place. I don’t know if you know Celestial Seasonings, but some of their teas should be Schedule I narcotics. Mix a bag of Sleepytime with a bag of Tension Tamer, that shit will mess you up. Don’t worry, it’s legal in Colorado. We buy boxes of teas: Jammin’ Lemon Ginger, Lemon Lavender Lane, Mint Magic… We’ve been having mystical experiences most nights since.

The Magical Land of the Dab Bar
We then go south to Colorado Springs. We drive all over town looking for water and a decent park to eat. The city turns and twists unexpectedly. We find ourselves in a fancy, new park, and two minutes later in a run-down, dry grass open space. I get a guest spot in a stand up show. It’s at a dab lounge, which means nothing to me, because I didn’t know what a dab bar was. But then I got there, and did the show, and I have to tell you… I still don’t know what a dab bar is. Supposedly, it’s kind of a social club for people to go and get high. This one, I read in the news later, has dubious legal standing, and it feels that way when I get there. The sign above it says RZU storage, and as you come in there’s a room with weed products: pipes, bongs, rolling paper, spray paint, instant ramen noodles, you know, marihuana essentials. The guy in there looks like Tom Petty with a white mullet and a fu manchu moustache. Also he has an ivory knife sticking out of his pants. He checks me in. There’s a door in the back. He buzzes me in and I go through into it like it’s Narnia. It truly feels like a magical place: a land where the walls are covered with the colors of the Jamaican flag. A land where a dog walks around licking everyone. A land where you can share pipes and bongs for a modicum price. A land where you can pay $2 to grab the waffle mix that sits on top of a counter and make your own waffles in the microwave. It’s hard to find who’s running the show because everyone is high out of their minds, but after an hour or so the show gets going. I’m introduced as the “brown comedian.” Surprisingly it’s a fun show. Easiest crowd work I’ve ever done. Maybe this is my crowd.

Sink Showers
Here’s a challenge: how do you keep yourself clean without a shower and limited access to water? Well, we have several answers for that problem. Sometimes we find a real shower, in a campground, or in a friend’s house, but that’s rare. We use body sprays made by Autumn to scrub every night. We have a shower on the outside of our camper and a privacy tent, but this wastes a lot of water and sometimes we’re not able to set the tent up. More often than not we rely on a sink shower, which means one of us uses the tiny camper sink to wash, soap, and rinse the entire body using a cup and our reserve water, and the other one turns to face the back in order to pretend there’s some sort of privacy in here.
Now, a sink shower may sound to unexperienced newbies such as yourselves as something difficult and awful. I will admit it’s a challenge to use such little water, lots of soap, and several towels in order to not make a mess, but sink showers are INCREDIBLE. Given that you have limited space you need to divide all your scrubbing attention to different parts at a time, which means a more detailed and conscious cleaning process. Given there are several complicated operations happening at the same time (balance, contortion, scrubbing, water release, water control…) your whole attention is devoted, unlike the otherwise mindless and mechanic operation of standing under a real shower. Real showers are for dull beginners. If showers were a videogame, sink showers would be “Difficult” mode, as they require complex multi-tasking abilities, yoga flexibility, and karate-like precision. So next time you feel the need of cleaning yourself take it to the next level and put all your skills to the test. Then call me to thank me. Namaste. You’re welcome.

Stargazing in Colorado with Phil, whom I love.
As we move west into the Rockies the nights start getting colder and darker. We spend several nights in high-altitude campgrounds, mostly alone and undisturbed, surrounded by juniper trees and pinyon pines. At night there’s nothing but silence and the darkness of moonless nights. Our window looks like a flat TV screen and we leave our shades open. During these nights, as we fall asleep, we see the Milky Way and the constellations, and the blue, rotating light of the sky moving, like the universe’s slowest movie. Like a less boring version of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Our star-watching nights suddenly become much more interesting once we reach Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We attend a volunteer-led stargazing session there. Phil, a retired astronomy professor, leads the session with his own telescope. He is very knowledgeable and very matter-of-fact. There’s not a lot of emotion in his explanations, but he takes questions with efficient enthusiasm. He shows us Jupiter, and Saturn’s rings, and the Andromeda galaxy. He shows us his favorite constellation, Cygnus, which is a swan flying right by the Milky Way. It is now my favorite too. This is a constellation that makes sense! You can see the neck, and the wings, and its little feet. It must’ve been easy being an artist in old Greece. You just drop seven blots of ink on a piece of paper and say “Look, a horse with wings!”

There’s no clear structure to Phil’s talk, he just tries to cram the most interesting stuff we can see in the two hour span he’s there. “You must find daytime very tedious,” someone in the group says teasingly. “Not particularly,” he responds, not willing to take the joke. “As a matter of fact, I have other hobbies and I do a fair amount of activities while the sun is out. Now let’s take a look at the Pleiades.” I’m in love with Phil.

After that lesson we’ve been practicing. It’s easy now to find several constellations, including Andromeda, Sagittarius, the Serpent Bearer… My favorite is the Pleiades. My review of the Pleiades: six stars. We also see the Andromeda galaxy, and learn from Phil that the light we see from it is 2.5 million years old, almost the same amount of time it took for erosion to form the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, give or take 500,000 years.

The Silence of Stars
People like to watch horror movies because something in that jolt moves them inside. I guess those people have never really looked at the stars. They’re terrifying. They make me uneasy. It’s so scary to know that the colossal secret that hides beyond their unfathomable distance will not be revealed to me in my lifetime. And it won’t be revealed to us ever. It makes death more frightful. Some people look at the stars and dream of the possibility of exploration. I feel the opposite. I think of the men and women who came before us and will come after, and the awe-inspiring silence they’ll hear coming from the stars we share. The amount of information we’ve acquired about the universe has grown exponentially in the last 100 years. Yet everything we’ve learned seems to be nothing but a very complicated way of showing how much we still don’t know, how much silence and darkness is engulfing our existence. Unlike our ancestors we now have the scientific certainty that we are minuscule, and alone. We’re all trapped in this bubble, unaided in our futile attempt to try not to think of that “Baby Shark” song (sorry).  
Isn’t that scarier than a Stephen King novel? How did we not collectively lose our minds when scientists in the 20th century discovered the full scope of the universe? I can’t even accept my own life as insignificant, how about all human life being nothing but a microscopic flash in the vastness of the universe? All human achievements – the pyramids of Egypt, Cervantes, Hall & Oates’s greatest hits – will eventually disappear. All of our tears, and embraces, and creations are a billionth of a fraction of a tiny little flashy spot in the middle of billions of other flashier spots, soon to be forgotten by the universe.
Luckily for us our brains have learned to ignore this fear in the stars, so during regular hours we can find hobbies and do a fair amount of activities while the sun is out.


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Esteban Writes from Yellowstone

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Hey, long time no see. I’ve had a couple of busy couple of weeks (as in “I’m not working and don’t want to open my computer” busy). I’ll start by letting you all know that, if you haven’t seen it, my Comedy Central set came out last week. You can watch it here. They edited out the part where I riffed on forgetting a joke, thank god. Overall I’m happier with it than I thought I would be. I received so much feedback from friends, family, and strangers. It was overwhelming and great. Damn, those social media hearts, they get to you. Thank you to all of you who reached out or watched it!
The ads I made for Pringles are also out. There are four of them with different topics: pugscoffee dateemotional cheating, and wine. The concept is a bit dumb (it’s an ad, after all), but I had fun doing them and was happy to see several of the lines I wrote or improvised in the ads.
We’ve had a couple of social weeks! We spent an entire week with our dear friends, Beth and David, in a cabin up in Wyoming, near the Bighorn National Forest. Days of regular showers, a full kitchen, great conversation, and just hanging around, sharing food and drinks. The days are accompanied by the sound and feel of the creek that overlooks the property, and I spend a good amount of time walking up the river, jumping from stone to stone. The prehistoric Netflix. I could watch a river streaming for hours.
We also wade in a beautiful swimming hole down the road. The river opens up right under a big clay wall that has several natural holes. David and I create a game that consists of throwing rocks into these holes, to see if we can make the rocks stay there. We feel like we’ve invented something totally original, until I realize it’s just a giant, natural version of skeeball –without the tickets.

After a week we say goodbye to Beth, David, and hot showers, but we stop by Thermopolis, a town with hot springs. They’re so proud of it they painted an entire mountain to say “World largest thermal waters”, with an arrow pointing at the town. We swim in their free pools. They smell like sulfur, so I come out smelling like rotten egg for a couple of days. This is a preferable alternative to my natural smell, to be honest.

On our way to Yellowstone we spend a night in Cody, WY, a town founded by Buffalo Bill, whose real name was Cody. In an attempt to recreate his sense of entertainment, this town has a theatrical shootout in the street. At 6 pm they roll out into the streets 3 shacks that represent a saloon, a bank, and a jail, and 5 characters that represent Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Wyatt Earp, and two unnamed women. All of them, buildings and characters, very stiff and badly constructed. The old-town bank shed had letters badly painted on it that say “ATM inside,” with an arrow. Whether this was a post-modern addition to add some humor or a graffiti by a local vandal was not clear.

Before the start of the scene, the emcee, a slow-moving man who has to read from a piece of paper the list of sponsors -the city of Cody and the local Chinese restaurant-, asks everyone to stand up for the national anthem. It surprises me how quickly everyone rises up, as if showing allegiance to the country seems natural before some street entertainment. I immediately feel bad about thinking that an act of patriotism before a shooting seems ironic, considering the latest news. Apparently I’m the only one who’s confused about it, as everyone is singing their hearts out. Why? Is the amateur production of an outlaw shootout what the forefathers meant when they were talking about freedom? I know Lincoln wouldn’t appreciate the sound of a gunshot during a play.
The emcee then introduces the characters, who shyly proceed to their marks. They seem a bit old and they’re exhausted by the time they greet the audience. The first act gets on their way: Cassidy and Sundance are playing “Go fish” in the saloon. When one accuses the other of cheating they both stand up, ready for a shootout. At least that’s what the script must’ve said. Before standing up they grasp the table in place and move the props carefully. Sundance Kid takes a cautious step back, unholsters the gun, peeking at it as trying to make sure it’s ready.
“No one calls me a cheater,” he says, while taking a couple of minutes to pull his gun out. But the gun malfunctions and doesn’t fire. In the confusion Butch Cassidy takes out his gun and after some hesitation he hands it to Sundance Kid, who shoots him. The moment the gun is heard I realize I’ve had enough of Cody. I’m not sure how the play ended, but if you hurry they may still be at it.

We head towards Big Sky. Our friends Holly and Brian have invited us to a music festival there. I’m not much of a concert-goer anymore. For me, listening to music has become a very private act. But being there I’m reminded of how fun it is to go up front and just feel the music pulsating through you, your friends, and a bunch of weird, fun-loving people. What a cool thing to show someone from another planet: a group of human bodies moving to magnified vibrations, raising hands and screaming at command, trying to sync up to these beats. “How come” the aliens would ask, “a ridiculous hat and a flashy scarf is cool as long as you’re on a stage, holding a guitar?” and I wouldn’t have an answer for them because I would be too busy clapping for Clay Johnson on drums or whatever.

Before heading into Yellowstone we stop at a free campsite where I meet Chris, Bob, Andrew, and Mike. We’re all strangers but we’ve come from our campsites to see Andrew’s rig. It’s impressive. A giant school bus covered with home-made modifications to be turned into a 2 bedroom apartment that San Francisco residents would envy. It has two bedrooms, a compostable toilet, a fully-equipped kitchen, a small living room, and a small garden with herbs, along some hanging plants. The most noticeable aspect of the bus is the second floor: they’ve taken a classic Volkswagen van and put the top half of it on top of the bus.
We tour the place, amazed at how big and cool a school bus can be without kids. We go up the stairs (it has stairs!) to the VW. The back window of it opens up into an 8×8 deck. In front of the VW there are several solar panels. Bob, an old man with a southern accent who tours the bus with me, Andrew, who bought it from a family some months ago, and me, sit at the deck and do some wonderful small talk: from camping, to full-timing, to vans, to Volskwagen, to Hitler, to socialism. When I find myself uselessly trying to convince Bob that Nazi Germany was not Marxist I realize I should just let it go. We’re just two strangers in the roof of someone else’s modified bus, this is not a place to discuss politics. Later I learned Bob just got a divorce after 41 years of marriage and has decided to spend his half in a class C camper and go see the country.
Later I meet Mike, who tells us he’s moving to a new town and a new job, arriving late as he had to take care of family issues. His brother had died a week ago, unexpectedly, in a McDonalds, suffering from a condition he may also have.
Another camper, Chris, is sitting by the fire after e come down, so I start talking to him. He’s a young guy, with a shy smile and big eyes. I immediately feel comfortable with him and start talking. He seems open to people, and tells me how happy he is that I decided to come join them. He speaks slowly and stares intensely but warmly. He’s nice but there’s a sense of feebleness and defeat in his voice. When I meet Haley, his dog, he tells me how much she means to him. “She helps me in my dark moments,” he says.
Chris lives in a modified pickup truck, and has been living there for 3 years. “It’s a small space, now that there’s two people in it.” I didn’t see anyone else. “Tanya is accompanying me,” he tells me. She’s a Finland native who’s been traveling with him for the last two months. Chris looks at the fire, and understands the weight of the words he’s about to share with me. “I just want to show her a bit of this country before time comes. She has brain cancer, and doesn’t have long.” She sleeps most of the day, I learn. Her memory is fading. She repeats herself and gets disoriented. “But it’s nice to share the road with someone.” Tanya comes out later. She moves slowly and her difficulty communicating could be because of her English vocabulary or her condition. She tries to go into the bus as if it’s her house, and asks about the showers. “No showers here, Tanya,” Chris says, leading her back to bed.
“This is our last stretch,” he tells me later. “She’s starting to forget things, and I’m not qualified to take care of her.” As the night falls the conversation among all of us goes to more expected places: work, travels, etc. And despite the intensity of Chris and Tanya’s story, and Bob’s, and Mike’s, we fall back to small talk. What else can you say to strangers who hold inside of them unspeakable feelings? Let’s just talk about the weather, campsites, or fascism.

We spend a couple of days in Yellowstone. Fire and water are in constant struggle here. These multicolor pools and their violence are like a prehistoric soup, cooking unicellular organisms and the secrets of geology since forever. We hear about the horrible burns and deaths of dozens of people who have fallen in these pools, and the rangers in charge of retrieving the bodies.
It’s a land of altitude and earthquakes. Despite of how different the landscape is I can’t help but to feel a connection to my Andes. The rock formations, the sharp silver edges of the volcanic mountains and the sudden waterfalls all remind me of home.
Yellowstone is a beautiful park, but it’s also a great example of what I call the tourist paradox: there’s so much people you can’t really enjoy the place that much, but you are also part of that problem. In those cynical eyes I see every tourist as an idiot, and I’m sure I’m seen the same way. If an alien sees us collectively, humanity may appear as a mass of bodies standing in the way of each other for the chance of a photo opportunity. But if that same alien takes the chance to meet me individually they’ll find a charming, interesting human who is mindful of his surroundings and knows how to use his car blinkers. In any case, it’s beautiful, and everyone there deserves to see it. Even if they’re carrying selfie sticks. Ok. Maybe not.

Where we are: Grand Teton National Park
Where we are going: Colorado! We’ll be in Denver and Boulder soon. If you know a place we can park our camper please let us know!

Esteban Writes from the Black Hills

Uncategorized

Hyperboles and Empty Promises

Signs for “Wall Drug” started appearing in Minnesota, 500 or so miles before reaching it. As we approach the town of Wall, the insistence of these billboards reach the intensity of a hungry toddler. What is Wall Drug? The signs don’t exactly say. They offer “free ice water,” “5 cent coffee,” and “cowboy boots.” It’s a place that seems to be trying to capitalize on the emptiness of South Dakota. In the plains of its highways it feels reassuring to have signs to pass by, and to have some kind of destination.
Wall Drug is the entrance to the Badlands and to the Black Hills. Books, food, gear, clothes, memorabilia… Wall Drug doesn’t just sell these things, it also sells the idea of itself and what it represents. This eclectic shopping mall is an important destination because there are signs that tell you it is. The place is filled with self-congratulatory items and presents itself as a world-famous destination. Without that context, if you find yourself inside it and look around, you’ll see that Wall Drug is just a small shopping mall disguised as a tourist attraction.
Here’s a tip: if you want to be a tourist attraction, just put a sign that says you are a “world famous” tourist attraction. The world is not going to protest, because the world has no idea you exist.
Without context, without its signs, Wall Drug is the most boring place on Earth. All those billboards provide a sense of an empty promise. A falseness that reflects well the story of the region and the story of this country. In the United States, just like in Wall Drug, the idea is greater than the reality.

From a distance the shade of the trees of the Black Hills do look dark, as if the sky was torn down layers of wall paper. It’s easy to see why the natives called them “the heart of everything that is.” Its rolling mountains covered in pines are full of life, and sounds of animals echo all around the area. As the United States started moving west and reached the place, conflict with American Indians arose. However ever-lasting peace was achieved when in 1867 the US and leaders of some tribes of the area signed the Fort Laramie pact, where the US agreed to renounce this territory to Native Americans. In US legal terms, Ever-lasting, of course, is the period between signing an agreement and finding gold in the territory. Give or take a couple of years. The gold rush, the entire history of the West, was, like Wall Drug, a promise of something greater than reality. Just like the Homestead Act, which promised plentiful land for the taking, the possibility of individual wealth was pushed forward by a very calculative government that wanted to get into these territories with no regard of others.

It was here that the myth of the West was born. The sheriffs, the brothels, the duels. Walking through Deadwood South Dakota made me want to go into a saloon to drink and gamble. Sadly no one was playing UNO. The romanticized view of the West was pushed forward by Buffallo Bill, a man who turned these troubled times into entertainment. People like Calamity Jane, Wild Bill, and Buffallo Bill himself became famous not necessarily for what they did, but for how they presented themselves in these shows and what they claimed to have done. The myth of these characters was greater than their reality. 

The hyperbole is the essence, it seems, of Wall Drug, the West, and of course of this country, the greatest country on earth.

Reality, as Told by Kevin Costner
The day after hiking to the top of Black Elk peak we decided to take it easy, so we plan on taking the wildlife loop, several miles of roads where you can drive and see all of the park’s fauna. Before doing so we go into the small movie theater on the park’s welcome center, and we watch the video showing images of the landscape that’s sitting right behind the screen. The movie tells the story of an idyllic white family with empty smiles that goes wherever the father points to. In other circumstances I would laugh at the people who watch these videos. Instead of watching it on this screen, you could just take a couple of steps, go out, and see everything through your own cell phone screen! Idiots. But to be fair, these chairs are the nicest place we’ve sit in weeks. It’s also worth noting that reality, unlike this movie, doesn’t have cheesy orchestral music, transition visual effects, or happy families. Also, real life is not narrated by Kevin Costner. Okay, maybe that’s a good thing?

Kevin Costner has a celebrity monopoly in the area. Dances with Wolves is the only Kevin Costner movie where he didn’t play, watched or talked about baseball, I believe. I guess that’s why he might have felt like he had unfinished business in this region, where it was filmed, as in the 90s he decided to build a Bison park here, and commissioned large sculptures to adorn it. Did we go to Costnerland? No, because our friend KC backed out of the project, and the artist sued him in the early 2000s. Great. Another white man that doesn’t fulfill his side of a contract in the region.

After the movie we took the wildlife loop and saw a bunch of strange, magnificent creatures. A herd of bison, wild burros, prairie dogs, motorcyclists, and pronghorns. By the time we were done it was six in the afternoon and we still didn’t have a place to camp. We had started the day in the Forest Service, where we got a giant map of the area. It looked like it was 1/10th scale. The idea was to find forest roads where dispersed camping is allowed. We had done it before, and it can be a very cool experience. The problem was these particular roads are like this presidency: irregular, filled with cracks, and seems like we’re not going to make it.

We went onto one of these forest roads, but the problem was that we needed to make sure we could back out or turn around on the road, so I went ahead to scout it. We spent an hour or more switching between me walking ahead, finding a spot where we could maybe turn around, Aut driving there, and moving ahead, and we didn’t find a single place fit for boondocking. As we started to turn against each other in frustration we gave up, and took a long, scary time to figure out a way to turn around our 15 ft trailer plus 13 ft car on a tiny, rough road. We managed, but the mood seemed spoiled. However, as we dealt with our defeat in silence, we saw a magnificent elk on the side of a hill, his silhouette shining in front of the sunset. Epic orchestral music started playing. “Despite the difficult times,” we heard Kevin Costner say, “the splendor of the mighty elk stands as a symbol of hope in these hills…” Dramatic pause, “of South Dakota.”
This peaceful resolution to conflict has been a constant in the trip. It seems it would be difficult to be together all the time, and sometimes we do get annoyed with each other, but that only lasts for the minutes it takes until we see something that triggers that epic music and then we’re back to loving each other as much as Kevin Costner loves baseball.

How Cowboys survive Ponderosa Pinecone attacks
Before reaching our next destination, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we spent 3 nights on a free campground called “Picnic Springs.” It’s in the middle of nowhere. Every campsite has mesas, cliffs, and rock formation, and ponderosa pine roots twisting and turning around rocks, hanging over the ledge. Our trailer and the campground clearance are surrounded by these pines, and behind it we have a small overhang, just for us.

I stand on top of the rocks looking at the other side of the cliffs and pretend it’s the late 19th Century and I’m a tough scout in search of gold. A brave, free-spirited man flirting with survival. Suddenly a pinecone drops behind me making a light sound and I suddenly get scared because what if it’s a dangerous rodent? It’s also not safe, being so close to this ten-foot edge. So I go back to my hammock and my puzzle book. Sure, these tough explorers were able to kill buffalos and survive in the wilderness but I’d like to see them fight through and defeat a crossword puzzle edited by Will Shortz. No cheating. Yeah, not to brag but I’ve done that a couple of times.

I think the term “cowboy” fits me really well. You can herd me like cattle and I cry like a child. Honestly, I can’t think of a least menacing name than “cowboy.” Wow. You are so tough you named yourself after the two most docile, innocent creatures around you? When they invented the term no one jumped in to suggest “bullman”? Did they try other ones first? “Don’t mess with me, kid, I’m a tough sheeptoddler.” Maybe they thought the hat may be enough. Maybe it is. Maybe I need a cowboy hat. 

Death and the Minutemen in The Badlands

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

The flat plains of South Dakota suddenly descend into the Missouri river and after crossing it the horizon changes dramatically until it breaks into the Badlands. “They should actually be called ‘the pretty-cool-lands,’” I tell Autumn, who rolls her eyes at me. “You missed the opportunity to call them Badass-lands,” she responds, walking away in search of a quieter place to see them. Damn, she’s right as usual.  
The Bad-ass-lands aggressive landscape consists of silver formations that cut through the green and blue horizon with the fury of a punk song. From their trails I feel like I’m a particle zoomed into the crevices of an old elephant’s skin.
The hills at the badlands hold the secret to earth’s millions of years of existence. There are yellow, silver, red, and white lines in these mounds, all geological layers lining up from mound to mound confirming earth’s age like the rings of a tree. The presence and absence of water and its lifeforms fossilized forever into strips.
Despite their testimony of unfathomable past times the Badlands also present signs of fragility: when standing among them you can see their cracks and the sediments they shed with each rainfall as a testimony of their disintegration. It’s a pretty little exercise, to compare your own brief existence as a fragment of a second in the life of these rocks. If those geological formations were shown in a fast forwarded video we would see the water flowing and draining and flowing again, the mountains rising and deflating like pimples, and somewhere in the middle I could try to press the “pause” button to see the moment we all stood among them with our mouths open, but probably couldn’t find us as those VHS remote control wheels are really tricky to operate.
We should try to be okay with being minuscule and accept our existence as a blink among mountains. A speck of dust in the next layer. Knowing that I will die is terrifying, but paradoxically there’s a sense of relief in the certainty of those mountain layers, their ability to continue with their million-old formations, and the new creatures that will roam them long after we’re all gone. And that’s how I would’ve liked to feel when I visited.
Here’s the tricky part: Latest reports on global warming assure that our collective irresponsibility will cause irreversible damage to the prairies around this place and these layers. Autumn shares a report from the Audubon society, which claims that in 30 years the ecosystem of the place will irreversibly change. “My nieces and nephews won’t be able to experience this,” She tells me while looking out a viewpoint. In a hundred years or so of industrial progress we have managed to scorch the earth to the point where even the testimony of its existence is in peril. This is one of the worst things we’ve done, almost as bad as adding artificial flavors to coffee. Layers of millions of years of water and fossilized life that will collapse in the geological equivalent of a nano-second because of our irresponsibility? Now that’s what I call truly terrifying death.

A couple of miles down the road, away from the silver edges and in the flat nothingness of the prairie lies the Minuteman museum. During the height of the Cold War the US established several nuclear sites with atomic rockets capable of destroying the entire planet in less than 30 minutes. Russia had a similar arsenal, of course. To me, the idea of mutually assured destruction was not only shocking in its ability to obliterate all life, but in the fact that the decision to end it all was (is) in the hands of a couple of human beings sitting next to a telephone and a couple of buttons.  
The site tells stories of how close we got a couple of times to complete annihilation if it weren’t for some operators in submarines who refused to follow orders when correctly guessing their radars may be wrong. I would love to meet the man who made the mistake to play a rehearsal tape in a real control room and almost started Armageddon. “Whoopsie!” He probably said to the disapproving grin of his commanding officer. “You little rascal, you!” he must have reprimanded, with his fists in his waist.
Anyway, these Domino’s pizza guns –ready to be launched in 30 minutes or less and really, really bad, –were called the minutemen. This was also the name given to a civilian militia group that was ready to kill and die in any given moment during the US revolution.
In 1980 two young kids from California, D. Boon and Mike Watt, chose the same name for a punk band that wrote fast, eclectic songs that lasted a minute or so. They seemed set on the idea of destroying the structure of the music business and to tour and perform as organically as possible. The human connection between these two kids and their ability to share their youthful and honest despair makes their music very endearing. While touring in Arizona, D. Boon laid in the back seat to rest from a headache. When the car axle suddenly broke he was thrown off the back window and died instantly. He was 27 years old.
The call to action and possible death of the 19th century revolutionary Minutemen happened with little warning, but the idea and accomplishment of independence carried on as a testimony of their existence. Boon’s life ended in a flash, but the music of the Minutemen carries on as a testimony of his existence. In the badlands, prehistoric water creatures have been extinct for millions of years, but their fossils carry on as testimonies of their existence. It’s a bit scary, just a bit, to think that we’re very possibly approaching an era when death and destruction will have no follow-up, no testimonies.
The US government still has the ability to literally blow away the earth into pieces. Every form of life, every mountain, every punk song ever recorded, every single layer of the badlands, could be gone in an instant. On the upside, this is the only way you’ll ever get the cinnamon flavor out of your grandma’s coffee maker. It’s strange to know, as we learn in this place, that there are federal employees right now whose entire job is to go into an underground control center and sit for hours, waiting to see if today is the day their phone will ring and the day their fingers will push the last buttons on Earth. What a job. Not only it must be hard to balance their stillness with the significance of their jobs, but also I bet the wifi sucks down there.

Similar to the trash we produce daily, all these bombs we humans have built can’t truly be disposed of. They exist now and will continue to exist, their overwhelming power sitting inside a secret bunker like a very scary version of Chekhov’s gun. As our environmental impact produces economic uncertainty, massive migration, and unprecedented famine and despair, will the world tension rise up enough for these handful of employees to get a call and push some buttons? Or will we agonize a bit slower, letting the planet disintegrate by the buttons we are all collectively pushing –the actions of us all, who can’t or won’t take immediate action to repair the damage we’ve created?
Whichever happens, two things are certain: one, the geological VHS video that shows the history of the planet will end abruptly regardless, as in geological times the difference between instant nuclear annihilation and the accelerated consequences of global warming is minimal, and two, nothing will remain as the testimony of the existence of life, except perhaps for a bit of artificial hazelnut flavor in an old coffee maker.


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Esteban Writes from the Dakotas

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First Impressions of the Grasslands
As we head out of Minnesota we listen to some history podcasts and learn about the Dakota war. We drive through many historical marks that tell different versions. The way history is told changes, but the desolate plains of western Minnesota appear not to. In these markers old plaques conflict with new ones. Blunt ones glorify the men who fought, captured, and executed more than 30 natives, the largest mass execution in US history. Contemporary ones recognize the government’s deceit and abuse. One of them in New Ulm rises “in memory of all who suffered in the Dakota War,” which seems almost offensive in its neutrality. The metal plaques and concrete structures contrast harshly with their location in parks and prairies where no one stops, and the only noise is the wind.

As we try to drive away from the Mississippi time starts moving slower and signs of civilization are sparse. There’s nothing but grassland all around us, so the wind comes full force, as it’s also trying to move away from this emptiness. We cross the border into South Dakota. A lot of people don’t know this, but highways in this state are actually treadmills. Regardless of their 80 mph speed limit we don’t seem to move much. As soon as we cross the state line the only thing we can see are small concrete buildings with colorful signs that just say FIREWORKS. Nothing more, except a few secluded farms and a large number of anti-abortion signs. It’s so weird to me that areas of this country where freedom is valued so much would bombard the few people that drive through them with such heavy moral indoctrination. If life and freedom are respected so much why are you blindly ignoring the circumstances of the other lives involved?

I hope you forgive me these two lighthearted observations on a very serious topic:

1. “Every life is a little miracle,” some signs say. It may seem that way around here, as seeing any sign of life within 100 miles within any direction must be a joyous occasion. 2. It hurts the pro-choice movement to have its counterpart called “pro-life.” When I first came to the US if someone would’ve asked me if I’m pro-life I would’ve said yes, of course, I’m a fan of the mitochondria! 95% of the time I’m into life. The other 5% has been times I’ve heard “Despacito” on the radio.

We reach Watertown where we visit the county museum. I love these little places that are basically old stuff from grandmas attics from all over town, with some printed pieces of paper in comic sans. There’s always an old iron oven and a weird mannequin staring directly into your soul. Every guide in these museums is trained to start every explanation with “they didn’t have phones back then.”
We’re greeted there by a chirpy blond lady he seem to have been aiting to talk to someone since 1989. We ask for recommendations of things to do in the state and spend the next four days listening to a stream of consciousness that includes great ideas of places to visit, some history of the county, and a little bit of casual racism. Her remarks are just observations of places she has visited. She tells us, for example, to lock our car doors if we enter Native American territory. “But,” she adds, “you should probably be more scared of the white people, they all carry guns and can be violent.” Yeah, people in the reserve could probably attest to that.


Shelter from the Storm in Sheyenne National Grasslands
The sky in South Dakota seemed like an ocean, with its clouds slowly wading around above us. But in our campsite in North Dakota the sky seems like a river. Clouds flow down furiously, coming and going dramatically while the grasslands stand still, waving. We have two rainy days. Rain doesn’t fall, but explodes on top of us. We have our weather radio on, and suddenly an alarm starts beeping. Our phones start vibrating too.
“Tornado warning. Get to safety immediately.” I can tell Autumn grew with these experiences because she immediately jumps up and is ready to act. I’m scared and fascinated. If you’ve heard a weather ready you know the voice coming through the static: it’s calm, clear, and not from this planet. No one should sound so friendly when enumerating the counties that are in danger of being destroyed. The alert switches from the relaxed voice to alarm sounds.
When the alarm goes off there’s little rain and it doesn’t feel dangerous. As we get out of our camper and look up we see a giant black cloud moving towards us. We go to the outhouse, the only concrete building around. You can see the rain as a line, like a moving border that seems so impossible close but still not above us. Birds stop chirping and start flying away, and there’s an intense stillness. Just both of us, standing outside, listening to the radio calmly enumerating the counties and towns that immediately surround us. Wind picks up and it lla turns black. We watch it pass by hat seems to be a quarter of a mile from us. It’s a weird feeling to stand there, at the mercy of this massive dark monster that moves fast and responds to no logic, and just wait to see if we’re unlucky enough to have our things damaged, get hurt or killed by it, or worse, to be forced to stay for a long time in the outhouse. “It seems like a good place to wait for a tornado,” my dad said later when I told him what had happened. “I would shit my pants.” Ten minutes later the sky opens up like a curtain. The color blue suddenly appears, and it brings bird songs with it.
Not so long ago this was the human experience: just stand in awe in front of nature and take your chance. Seems easier to believe in a superior power if every day of your life is ruled by the random strength of natural forces. This primal helplessness may be scary but it also bridges my connection with those frightened, defenseless creatures that were all our ancestors, and that we still are. They must have had the same experience, right here, sans a concrete outhouse filled with single ply rolls of toilet paper. Lucky bastards.
Maybe I’m the scared one. The North Dakota natives were probably as fearless as the only other people in our campsite. When the alarm went off I went there, with the radio in my hand. “I don’t know if you heard,” I said with urgency, “but there’s a tornado warning!” In my mind I pictured Jim and Shannon dropping all their belongings and running to the outhouse, thanking me for their lives. Instead Jim just turned his back to me and said “fun!” and kept going with his business. After the emergency passed and the sky turned blue I went to their campground to see them just as relaxed as I left them. “You must be from around here,” I asked. They nodded with a condescending smile.

There’s Nothing in the Dakotas
After Jim and Shannon leave we have half a day of solitude. We have a tent that attaches to our camper, and completely seals us from mosquitoes. New neighbors come at evening to say hi, Craig and Katherine, and they are our first campground guests into the tent. He’s reflexive and quiet, she’s loud and extroverted. Our shared beliefs in traveling, conservation and politics makes the conversation easy, and we relate to them a lot until they mention their love for Indiana. “Just heading back home and seeing the fields of corn and the hot, humid air of summer brings me so much joy!” she says.
I regularly make fun of Indiana, and how could I not, it’s an easy target. Their motto is “the crossroads of America,” as if they knew people who go there are also on their way out. I’ve driven through it regularly on my drive from Madison to Michigan and if highway signs are to be believed the only thing there is in Indiana is accident lawyers, adult stores, and Jesus. Seems strange that someone who has lived there and traveled away several times can find it beautiful.
I don’t understand it until later, when, during a conversation about a particular park she sits up in her chair and says “that place is beautiful! So many places are beautiful! Every time I go to a new place, it’s so cool. Everywhere is beautiful.”
While Katherine may not be talking particularly about I90/I94, her words resonate with me. The Dakotas are another national punchline. But I can completely relate to Katherine here, in the uneventful grasslands of North Dakota, where nothing happens and everything is beautiful.

Well, well, well, Fargo
In its welcome center the city of Fargo proudly showcases its connection to the movie and TV show of the same name. Posters, t-shirts, a copy of the script, set memorabilia, the original woodchipper from the infamous scene of the film, signed by the directors, and a replica of the woodchipper, which is placed outdoors, in case you come after hours. You wouldn’t want to miss the woodchipper. Next to the woodchippers the welcoming center has brochures on what to do in Fargo, and going to the welcoming center to check the woodchippers is near the top of the list.
I find this incredibly amusing.
Foot note: if you haven’t seen Fargo you need to step it up. I don’t want to spoil the importance of the woodchipper, but imagine a creative way such a powerful tool could be use on a crime/dark comedy film by the Coen brothers and you’ll have a strong foothold on the plot. It’s a kick. End of foot note.
Fargo is a somewhat charming little city, very different from the vibe of the movie, with an interesting history and notable geological characteristics. It’s also somewhat hip and young. Hip cities are measured by the presence of cool murals and amount of craft breweries. However the city happily insists on their connection to a film that projects a dark image of the area and featured the city for less than two minutes. It’s a town built for and by railroad companies. Fargo was named after the same guy in Wells Fargo, who built part of that railroad. “Interesting fact,” I tell Autumn, “Wells Fargo was originally named ‘well, well, well, Fargo!’ but it was too long, so they shortened it.”
I find this incredibly amusing. Autumn doesn’t.
As we leave town we listen to some history podcast that talks about the absurd desire for territory and the federal impulse of pushing west at every cost. Railroad corporations were part of the problem. We hear about the shady deals and coordinated greed of these tycoons with the US government, which resulted in the repossession of lands, armed conflicts, and suffering of the native people. Well, well, well, Fargo. Maybe a dark crime film fits you just right.

Where we are: The Badlands, in South Dakota.
What’s next: The Black Hills, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Esteban Writes from Minnesota

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Duluth and Bob Dylan
We unexpectedly end up in Duluth.
I’m not sure I get this city. Is it an industrial town that moves on progress? Or a museum of old prosperity? Its streets run down from the hills, landing into the cold waters of Lake superior and the raised platforms of rusted metal, railroads and old industry. Lots of things are suspended here: bridges, walkways, time. But at the same time it’s a city of movement. Trains and ships disappearing in the horizon. Those hills pushing you down onto highway 61 as an invitation to leave. The entire city seems to be saying “let’s keep it moving.”
Duluth seems committed to its connection to Bob Dylan. He was born and spent the first years of his life here, so we decided to go check his childhood house. It was only six blocks away, but on the hills of Duluth the journey seemed endless. How many steps must a man walk up before reaching Bob Dylan’s house? The answer my friend is too many. Get an Uber or something.
In our way I think of Me and Bobby D. I have a weird relationship with him. I spent several years trying to understand why he was such a legend. But my English was never good enough to capture his lyrics while listening to him.
I slowly started absorbing the meaning of his songs through his music, his phrasing, and some words here or there. I felt like I understood something, even though things didn’t make much logical sense. I’m happy to report that, now that I’ve learned more of the language, and I’ve come to understand more and more of his music, he still makes no sense. I am as lost as I was before. And that’s what makes him special. He is a masterful writer, but he seems to be able to convey an emotion beyond the words. Something always hides in his music, as in his demeanor. Something mysterious that seems to make sense beyond logic. I don’t get what he’s saying, but I get it.
The house was a house in the same sense Bob Dylan is just a person. There’s nothing intrinsically especial about it. Nothing to get. Just another house in the block. Bob was also just another kid playing in the sidewalks of Duluth, looking below at the contrast between Lake Superior and the mysterious vastness of the engineered horizon of railroads and highways. The gravitational pull of that hill, the stillness of water, and the urgency of industry all below him, as some kind of metaphor for the United States. The kind of metaphor he doesn’t understand, but he gets it. We stand there for two minutes, looking at the plate. “First house of Bob Dylan. 1941-1947.” Autumn turns and sees down into the horizon. “Ok. Let’s keep it moving.”

Max, Holly, Clark, Soccer, and Minneapolis

We visit our dear friends Holly and Max. I’m excited to see them, not because they used to be our neighbors, but because I want to desperately see Clark. Whenever they left town, Holly and Max used to ask me to check on their cat, so I would go down the stairs to feed him. Clark and I have a love/hate relationship, as in I love him and he hates me. Those checking sessions where basically me leaving food on his plate and badly trying to get him to come out of his hiding spot to play with me.
They live in one of the cutest houses in Minneapolis. How is it possible for a house to be quaint, cozy, and small, and still have 5 bedrooms? As soon as we walk in they make us feel so welcome, even though Holly is leaving for a trip abroad the next day. We connect to their WiFi, eat their food, and use their shower. Not to brag, but I’ve showered four days in a row now. They have set up their guest room for us, with everything we could need (except for gummy bears, which they confess have left for guests before. I guess we’re not good enough for them?). We left them a decent review.
They take us out to dinner to a very busy and popular Ecuadorian restaurant. There’s a significant population of Ecuadorables here in Minneapolis, apparently. This is not the only thing that makes me nostalgic: Max’s knowledge and passion for soccer reminds me of my friends and family back home. I deeply admire Max’s ability to turn a casual conversation about a player into a clever reflection on world politics or history. I’m not particularly a sports person, but I learned to appreciate the sport in the same way I learned how to dance salsa, or be a Catholic: it was basically a requirement to graduate high school in Ecuador.
As I’ve moved from home I’ve learned to understand that watching sports is a way to connect with people from all over the planet. And the US is so isolated in this sense, unwilling to pay much attention to worldwide competitions but calling itself the greatest country on Earth. You got your own sports here, and that’s it. In Ecuador we do have some sports that are only played there, like Ecuavolley. Our version has three players on each team, is played with a heavier ball, and I think it’s a requirement to have a slightly heavier dude playing without a shirt. It’s badass.
In this country I consider watching soccer a political act. It’s a radically progressive political pastime. Liberals talk about the importance of appreciating and accepting the rest of the world but few are willing to sit down and try to understand the two things that all continents love: soccer and the metric system. You may very well think it’s boring (things you don’t understand are always boring; ask anyone who tries to watch football or baseball for the first time), but it’s the easiest way to connect with almost anyone in the planet. If you ever meet a Brazilian, an Italian, a South African, you can immediately start a conversation about how annoying Argentinians can be.
So you think you’re progressive? If you don’t start watching soccer you’re still kilometers away from being woke. After leaving Max and Holly’s house we drive down a park in the city. I see a volleyball court with three men on each side, two of them are not wearing a shirt. Holy shit. Ecuavolley has made its way here. It’s almost an illusion, as we quickly drive away, but in that moment I get a glimpse of a couple of gringo faces in the audience. This vision is currently the best hope for the US.
As for Clark, well, let’s just say I don’t think he’ll ever enjoy Ecuavolley.

Michelle, Mike, Fireworks, and Waterfalls
Minneapolis spreads beyond my understanding. Every street seems to form a part of a perfect grid and then it abruptly lands on a river, a lake, or a park with a river or lake. It’s also a city full of corners packed with multicultural independent businesses with some weird angle. A butcher shop that’s also a record store. A coffee place that accepts used books as payment. A honey bee farm that makes free-range bicycles. You can’t apply for a business permit if you don’t brew your own beer. It’s a really cool city. At least for like three weeks of the year. Here’s where we spend our 4th of July. We stayed in Michelle and Mike’s driveway that night. I barely knew Michelle, she’s Aut’s ex co-worker and friend, but I immediately learn to respect and admire her. She has an incredible ability (and need) to connect with people, and seems to be happiest when building connections in her community. Waving to strangers, saying hi to neighbors, or handing flyers to create a community dog park nearby. She shares her backyard coop eggs with the neighborhood. In front of their house they have built a small wooden box that reads:
Community Eggs
Enjoy!
For her, being an extrovert is a moral and political responsibility. It seems to me the perfect person to spend this holiday with.
Regardless of the country or their meaning, patriotic holidays seem cartoonish to me. The imagined concept of what a country is sometimes seem even more plastic during those days. And the US is a ridiculous country. Not that there’s something wrong with that, every country is ridiculous. The concept of a country requires some level of ludicrous symbology. I’m not saying it’s silly to enjoy fireworks or holiday traditions, and I’m not passing moral judgement, just pointing out how absurd they sometimes seem. 4th of July especially. To be fair, it seems very proper to celebrate the US with explosives and rockets. This country surely is proud of being loud and blowing things up.
We ignore the whole thing and go to Minehaha Park. Its paths, stairs, and corners remind me of the parks in bigger cities like Central Park in New York, or Golden Gate park in San Francisco. But in this one the calm demeanor of carefully designed public spaces suddenly clashes with an impressive waterfall and the fast river flow that follows. The park seems to symbolize the spirit of the city: planned urban organization next to nature. The loudness of the waterfall as we walk masks the sounds of the fireworks. Feels like a good celebration to me.

What’s next:
The Dakotas! The Badlands!
Thanks for reading and thanks to those who have replied. Love hearing from you.

Esteban

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Esteban Writes from San Francisco

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Hang on tight, we got a long one here. I’m currently in Duluth, MN, after a couple of days of free camping, but this one will focus on my last week’s trip to San Francisco. Lots of thing to cover, so sorry for the length. I’ve already cut this in half, so thank me later.

Dear old lady, please don’t die

Halfway through the flight from Minneapolis to San Francisco a lady 3 rows in front of me is suddenly carried out of her seat, passed out. There’s noise and commotion, and the flight attendants come through the intercom to ask for a doctor. Two of them run to her and lay her down in the aisle. I can’t see anything but the attendants’ faces, who are running back and forth, bringing aid kits, blankets from the back of the plane. Suddenly someone is preparing a syringe, a passenger is instructed to hold an IV, and the doctor is reading the instructions on a defibrillator. I have no idea how serious the emergency is, but it feels like it prolongs for hours. It reminds me of that man that almost died during a comedy show I did once with Judd Apatow.
The rest of the plane was in complete silence. What are we to do? Are we to ignore the problem and go back to “Marley and Me” or whatever? Is it intrusive to ask the flight attendant how she is doing? Complicit in our inability and our incapacity to act, we just wait there, hoping for an opportunity to get some information, or to help in some way. Then, it happens. The flight attendant brings some sort of emergency communication headphones with double jacks that connect to two emergency input plugs that are right above my head. The passenger in the isle untangles the chord. I hold the input covers open, and the passenger in the middle seat plugs them in. Together we are “Row 27,” a perfectly efficient team of superheroes.
“Yeah, these headphones are not working here,” says the attendant. “I’ll use the plug in the back.”
By the time 24B proposes to plug them again she’s already near the 40s.
“It’s ok, 24B,” I tell him, with my hand on his shoulder, “It’s ok.” But deep down inside I know. Row 27 is no more.
We do an emergency landing in Denver and paramedics rush in and take her. I never see her face or understand her condition. All I know is she’s still alive, and based on the calm demeanor of the doctors, the paramedics, and her family I assume she’s ok.
All of them, along with the flight attendants and the four passengers around her that helped, get an applause. Row 27 does not, but that’s ok. “Good deeds must be done in the shadows,” I whisper to them, while we clap as if we were nothing but regular passengers…

San Francisco
Getting a city’s first impression from their subway always feels like a Christmas gift. You ascend the stairs in darkness and suddenly the city hits you in the face. You’re never sure what to expect. I got out of the BART system in the downtown area, and saw the Civic Center, which was closed and fenced for some kind of event. It was like that holiday I got a remote-control robot that didn’t include batteries. I just sat and stared at it. I hate private events in closed public spaces. It should not be allowed to have a few profiting from what’s supposedly for everyone. Oh, is that Clusterfest? The thing I’m profiting from? Oh, okay, carry on.
I feel a bit saddened by this city. It’s beautiful and I love how it shows the possibility of multi-cultural communities, but it’s also a city that seems to exemplify the wild contrast brought by late stage capitalism. The homeless population, the lack of attention to mental health, and the drug epidemic issues contrast with beautiful renovated Victorian spaces occupied by tech millennials who’s work websites probably describe ingenious apps that will save the world. The streets of Haight-Ashbury and the hippie movement sometime feels reduced to a business opportunity, and the ideals of those times seem a bit lost behind the superficial aesthetic of tie-dye t-shirts and the smell of weed and incense. Still, the powerful presence of the LGBTQ community and the openly progressive spirit of the city filled me with joy. I’ve never had so many people pronouncing my name right!
I got an Airbnb near Golden Gate park, in a quiet neighborhood that had amazing vegan food and a quiet vibe. In a coffee shop a Latina woman greeted me in Spanish. This is a really exciting event that happens from time to time, when two Spanish-speaking latinos just jump at it. Then two, three other clients came in, all “gringos.” Turns out, she just greets everyone in Spanish, and everyone who goes there tries to engage in Spanish. As a Spanish teacher who supports bilingualism, it was beautiful, but also it meant it wasn’t something particular about me. Damn, Norma, I thought we shared something.
I took a table outside, next to a pretty interesting group. I know this sounds like a joke, or the start of a riddle in a multi-cultural production of a Greek tragedy, but all of this happened, more or less. There were three people: a Latina woman, a Black woman, and a White woman. They were switching between languages: English, Spanish, and some French.  They had three dogs: a black, big dog, a brown fluffy one, and a small, white one. The dogs were named Tsuki, Coco, and Pearl. Dogs, languages, names, and people didn’t quite correlate to one another.
As they were leaving they passed by my table and I just had to say hi to the dogs. They immediately took this as an opportunity to settle some sort of long-held controversy as they all stood in front of me and immediately asked me which dog I liked the most. The dogs, as if trained, sat down expectantly. It was like Paris and the Golden Apple. I politely told them it was against my principles to show any kind of preference for any dog, as they were all beautiful creatures who…
“You MUST choose” They said, all six of them, interrupting me in unison.
“Oh, Ok. In that case I gotta go with Tsuki.”
Tsuki and his owner were incredibly excited about this. According to the myth they will live forever. All other 4 immediately became constellations.
What Pearl and Coco didn’t know is while shaking his leg Tsuki slipped me a $20.
He didn’t need to. He was truly a beautiful dog. Don’t tell Zeus.

Clusterfest
I don’t know how I got to this festival, but there I was, mingling around green rooms with Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Adam Scott, Todd Barry, Chad Daniels, Rory Scovel, Tig Notaro…
On Saturday, perhaps too confident, I decided not to worry too much about my set. I walked through the city and got to the venue all sweaty. They took us all through make-up and hair, and we were invited to record a small interview for a podcast, and to do some promo stuff for Comedy Central’s Instagram page. I grabbed a drink backstage and waited for my set, feeling relaxed and excited, chatting with other comics and trying not to think much of it. I wasn’t nervous at all until my name got called and I jumped on stage.
I had two options on how to approach this set: I could memorize it word by word, hitting “play” in my mind, and having a precise, safe set, or I could go out there and feel the room a bit, being a bit loose, and take my chances. I felt confident enough to do the latter and regretted it the minute I walked on stage. The result was that I doubted my self for a second and made a couple of mistakes. I was a bit nervous to start, and at one point I blanked. “Great, I forgot my next joke,” I told the audience. “Seems like a good thing to do in a big show.” Got some laughs and kept going. At the end I felt disappointed. I had recorded my set but didn’t dare to listen to it. In my mind it was a bad set. Comics and producers around me congratulated me, but you can’t trust them! David Koechner was particularly supportive. It wasn’t until I headed out to the streets and heard strangers complimenting me that I started feeling better.
I listened to the recording on Tuesday, and it was way better than I expected. At least I won’t be ashamed of it when it comes out.

The Punchline and Pringles
On Sunday I did a set at a small theater downtown. After my set some comics invited me to The Punchline, a famous club that has a locals night on Sundays. In order to work at the club, locals need to come every Sunday for a year, and then at some point they get one shot to perform. They don’t know what week, they don’t know the line up. The booker feels the room out and approaches the comics, who are all lined up at the sides like wrestlers waiting for the tag, and says “you’re next.” And then you barely have time to put your thoughts together and perform 5 or so minutes after a year of waiting,
This booker seemed annoyed to meet me, and when I asked for the possibility of doing a set he dismissed me. “You are welcome to stay and watch,” he said. So I sat down in a table in the back and saw some great locals and other beginners who’s bad sets probably denied them the opportunity to do another one in a long while. The room’s energy switched from relaxed to tense depending on the stakes and ability of each of them. Then the booker tapped me on the shoulder. “You can go up next. You have 5 minutes, you get a light at 4.” I played it safe and had a great set. At the end of the night I hung out with the locals and heard about their efforts to save the club, which is closing its location soon. Hopefully they get to save it. But at least I was glad I got to do a set there before it happens.

I stayed in San Francisco two more days to film an ad for Pringles through Comedy Central. They put me up in a nice hotel. “Welcome, Esteban,” the woman at the desk told me when I checked in. “We have a King-Size bed waiting for you!” I responded that it was perfect as that is the bed size I relate with the most.
On Tuesday I got an early pick up at the hotel, and spent six hours riffing jokes about potato chips. In the corner of the set two guys handled cans of pringles like nuclear scientists handling plutonium. Blue rubber gloves and intense precision. They were stacking them perfectly and determining which ones were the best looking ones to be featured in the ad. After their decision they handed a beautiful, idyllic chip to one of the other comics, who, after a failed first take, instinctively ate it in one single bite. The sound of that chip crunching in his teeth made the Pringles scientists drop to the floor and scream “THE HUMANITY!” It was fun.
Most of the content we filmed was improvised, but in one of the takes I was to react to some jalapeño heat in the chips, so when I took a bite I reacted as I thought people who can’t handle heat react to hot chips. ¨
“Cut!” said the director. “Esteban, let’s try that again but this time pretend you’re eating a hot chip and not like you are struck by lighting while having a stroke.” So bad news, you won’t get to see my beautiful hot chip performance, which I expected would get me an Oscar. They do have an Oscar category for “Best performance in snack/beverage commercial” right?
I went back to the hotel and met with Sara, a friend from Madison, at a small sushi restaurant for dinner. She’s probably still there, waiting for her miso soup to arrive. Then back to my ride, to two planes, three airports, transported back to my reality. It was all really exciting and new and fresh, but nothing felt as exciting as seeing my entire house, all of my belongings, and my favorite celebrity, Autumn, pulling over the small, non-busy street around the Marquette airport.
I’m back to reality, and it feels good.

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Esteban Writes from the Mackinac Bridge

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Last week felt like our trip had not officially started, as we were been waiting for our final piece of equipment to arrive.  Which means we were going around in circles around West Michigan, waiting for it to arrive. It’s a solar panel! And we think it has enough wattage to give us sustainable power through several days of off-the-grid camping. Our trip is in a big part motivated by sustainability, so we’re excited to use it. 
While waiting, we decided to spend the weekend at Silver Lake Dunes, as my father-in-law has a cottage there. Most of Autumn’s family came, including Felton, my brother-in-law’s dog, who baptized the place by running out of the car, right into the central part of the living room, and taking a shit in front of everyone. Yeah, Felton is a… special dog.
On saturday we left our camper there and drove back to Muskegon, to meet with two of our closest friends, Beth & David, who were on their way back to Wisconsin via Lake Michigan ferry. We had dinner at a place that had an “award winning” soup. Just like that, in quotation marks. The soup was basically liquified cheddar, and it was “good.” We then walked through Pere Marquette park, a beautiful beach on the lake. We hadn’t seen each other in a while but it was as if no days had pass. I’ve grown to love them in a special way, as their relationship, their curiosity, and their itinerant life reminds me of ourselves.
“Special things happen when we’re together,” I say as we watch the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. What a cliché, to feel emotional over a sunset, but what can I tell you, it was a pretty good one. Now I’m convinced I’m not the kind of person that would cry over a sunset, and I didn’t. But I could have if I would’ve allowed it.
We head back to Silver lake, and on Sunday we walked in the dunes. Several sand dunes surround Lake Michigan and Silver lake, and it’s such a powerful landscape. While walking there I told my niece Hannah, queen of the eye-roll, about the Star Wars composer who came to Silver Lake, and it was here where he felt inspired to write the Darth Vader theme song.
She knew it was a set up so she just looked at me, already annoyed.
“Yeah, apparently he pointed at the landscape and went ‘dune, dune, dune, dune-dune-dune, dune-dune-dune!'”
Both Autumn and her were not impressed with my ¨award winning” comedy.

Then we headed out to Manistee National Forest, and arrived at Condon lake, a small camping site where we camped for free. And this was a big part of our plan: to live in shared land they belongs to you, me, and Woody Guthrie. That night I finally reorganized the car while Aut prepared dinner. When she called me in we set a table with spaghetti, a side salad, and wine, and that tiny table in the middle of the silence of an isolated forest was suddenly home. That dinner was more powerful than a sunset, apparently, because I cried.  

Not everything is overwhelming beauty. A couple days later we slept in the parking lot of Camping World, an RV store by the side of an intersection in a town called Houghton Lake. Instead of birds chirping we were woken up by a delivery truck backing up right next to us at 7 am. That morning, in the store lounge, we had a conversation with an older couple from Alabama, who after a friendly introductory chat asked me if I was illegal. She made some pretty strong comments about immigration. My first instinct was to respond aggressively, and show how upset I was. But this woman was legitimately curious about my opinion so I calmly expressed the importance of immigration, and when she talked about assimilation and people speaking English I talked about the multicultural background of the people that have been living there long before the United States was founded. “That’s a good perspective” she said, and while I doubt 15 minutes of conversation in the lounge of Camping World of Houghton Lake was enough to make her go back to Alabama to let all friends and family know how mistaken they are, I felt proud to have had a conversation that may have helped someone understand a new point of view. Whenever I think of people like her, hardcore conservatives with deep held beliefs against immigration, I try to remember that for the most part there’s no ill will in them. The majority of them are not intrinsically hateful. We just live in different realities, and the moral convictions that were imposed onto her are different than the ones that were imposed on me. Their isolation from urban areas with more immigration limits their understanding of other spaces, and it’s good to have opportunities to share experiences with others. Reaching out to the other side with empathy and compassion is the only way to build a healthy society. Hard to do it though, as sometimes with those comments my mind just wants to go to the dark side (queue the Darth Vader dune song).

We then spent two days in Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Forest, where the weather was rainy. Which meant spending a lot of time together in our little house. We made it work by pretending we live in a normally sized apartment, so when I needed something I would yell to the other side of the house. We had an awesome hike through the woods that lead to a dramatic view of lake Michigan. Aut saw a really cool bird and got so excited she hurt my arm.
Yesterday we had dinner at Petoskey, an artsy, touristy little town, where we splurged with dinner, a brewery visit, and incredible gelato. And then slept in another parking lot, this time in a casino.
We have crossed the Mackinaw bridge today, so we’re officially in Michigan’s UP! Next week we’re taking a break while I fly to San Francisco for 5 days, because I got a couple of gigs with a company called “Comedy Central”? Never heard of it. I should be writing for these gigs, but haven’t had much time. My mind is focused on this trip!

Up next:
Saint Ignace
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Marquette, MI
And San Francisco!

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If you want, reply to the letter and let me know if you have questions, comments, or insults. Thanks for reading this. Love you all!

Esteban

Esteban Writes from Central Michigan

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Hey, welcome to my newsletter! Thanks for trusting me with your email address. Expect updates from places I’m visiting, profiles of people I’ll meet on the road, and lots of lots of spam, as I’ll be selling your personal information to the highest bidder.
Last weekend we had to fit everything we decided to keep in a Toyota Highlander, which was not an easy task. So I would like to take a moment to thank the people that stopped at our garage sale, the St. Vinnies thrift shop for being located so close to our house, and my younger self for all those years of Tetris. I don’t know if there’s something deep in our primal instincts but packing that car made me feel like the monkey that throws the bone at the end of the first act of 2001:A Space Odyssey (except the bone was packed under the seat along with the toolbox).
We left Madison on Sunday, after paying tribute to the city that saw us change so much. I performed at the club that weekend, so they put us in a hotel for our last day. We suddenly turned into tourists, walking down State St., standing at the center of the Capitol and looking up, eating some spicy cheese bread… It helped us assimilate we were leaving, which still feels surreal. We drove out crying like babies, listening to a playlist methodically engineered to squeeze every teardrop possible. Songs included “Two of Us” by the Beatles, “This will be Our Year” by the Zombies, and “It’s Time to Move On” by Tom Petty.
We’re currently near Lansing, MI. If you don’t know where that is, ask someone from Michigan. They’ll pull their palm up, near your face, and point at the exact location, showing you precisely how annoying they can be. I’m among those people right now! My family in law live here, and we’ve come to drop our stuff and get last minute arrangements done in order to hit the road. Love them all. We’re having some family time before we head out. So so far our journey has felt like a family visit.
However we are getting things done and getting ready! We’ve already had some unexpected stuff happening: 400 miles of uneventful travel only to get to our storage site, try to open our camper, and breaking the key inside the lock. If you’re ever in the area, hit up Ionia Lock and Key, and ask for John. He’s a sweet, lanky, redheaded man who came from the pastoral highlands of Scotland to live in rural Central Michigan because he fell in love with this place. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
But we have already visited some interesting places! Yesterday for example we started our trip right by visiting the breathtaking wilderness of a DMV. A lush place filled with untamed noises, with some menacing creatures that came too close to us even though you’re not supposed to feed them. Just what we signed up for: a place to sit and do nothing for hours.
Coming up:
A weekend in Silver Lake Sand Dunes
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
A drive back to pick up a solar panel
And finally I need to fly to San Francisco at the end of the month to perform there for Comedy Central (!). I’ll be performing at a comedy festival called Clusterfest, and I’ll appear on a Comedy Central TV show. Yeah someone there screwed up so I get to go.

I feel there’s more I should be sharing but right now I’m at my brother in law’s and we just bought a dozen donuts so I have priorities. Also, wow, really impressed you made it this far.

Thanks again for taking a moment to go through your spam folder and reading this. Love you all.

E.

The Competitive Sport of Wisconsin Small Talk

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The worst thing about Wisconsin’s winter is not only that it sucks, it’s that you’re forced to talk about it.

As I leave behind the cold February wind and unwrap six layers of winter gear, I see Wendy from HR walking into the building. Our eyes meet. I’m terrified, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s on. I’m trapped. It’s time for small talk.


Am I scared? Of course. This is not any kind of small talk, but Wisconsin small talk. And I’m facing Wendy herself, the queen of chit chat. It’s the big leagues. She approaches with the warmest smile, her face slightly tilted. Oh, she’s good. People tremble when poised against her baby pictures. There are rumors of some defenseless souls who have been exposed to up to five of her crochet projects. This is not amateur hour.

“Esteban!” she shouts, opening her eyes wide. “I almost didn’t make it. I have no idea how I actually got out of bed!” she says, pointing at the whirlwind outside. This is why she’s a legend. Not even a “Hey,” no sign of a “how are you” – we’re going straight into the weather. The worst thing about Wisconsin’s winter is not only that it sucks, it’s that you’re forced to talk about it. But I don’t even flinch. I’ve been training. Big smile, hands on the waist, strong eye contact. “The only thing that got me out of bed,” I say, skipping a beat for maximum effect. “was coffee!” She bursts into laughter. Oh, how we chuckle and howl. I’m starting strong. Maybe Wendy from HR has finally met her match.

I’ve been training on my Wisconsin small talk since I arrived to Madison 6 years ago. Nothing prepared me for such professional chit-chat. Sure, everyone’s proud of the Packers, but nobody seems proud of Wisconsinites’ greatest pastime. And as an immigrant from South America I tried too long to avoid it: arriving late to all meetings, speaking Español to my Uber driver, or keeping my groceries under 12 items or less so I can use the self-check out machine at Woodman’s.

Every encounter between any living multicellular form involves a power struggle. Some animals show their teeth, some animals emit incoherent sounds, and others sniff butts. Small talk is nothing but an overly complicated version of the first two. And I felt terrified of playing this game of repartee with such pros. It felt like being tossed in to play basketball with Michael Jordan, or like trying to prove a point using outdated sports references because everything you know about American sports is the 1996 live action/animated classic film Space Jam.

Hi, I’m Michael, get ready to jam.

Wendy and I move slowly down the hall and I feel like I’m doing great. She talks about the unpredictability of March, I mention Al Gore, we share a moment of silence for the polar bears. I wonder why people here are so keen on these performances of social comfort. There’s no need for small talk where I’m from. Quito is a relatively big, cosmopolitan city, so that may be part of it. In South America we kiss hello with strangers, quickly compliment each other, and go on our way. There’s no need to establish a social connection when we’re already tightly linked by Salsa music, Catholicism, and all those germs from kissing strangers. Maybe the intensity of these things keeps us on the move. If I wanted to know any personal detail about my coworkers I could just ask my aunt Julia. Here in the US all CIA information is classified, but in Ecuador you can gain access to the Aunt Intelligence Network with a phone call and the promise of some herbal tea.

When Wendy and I reach the end of the hallway and notice we are clearly going in opposite directions, it’s evident neither of us wants to let it go. I refuse to lose. Too much is on the line for me. This is graduation day. I am not going to go gently into the “have a good day.” Defeating Wendy would mean I’m no longer scared of small talk. It means I can look Wisconsin’s weather in its ugly face and say “I understand you. I understand your people.” It means I can feel ok with wearing an orange Styrofoam wedge on my head. But also, I must confess: compared to the freezing gray outside, Wendy’s casual banter is making me feel warm inside. It makes me realize that small talk is the only logical reason why someone would ever settle on Wisconsin.

I couldn’t fathom the existence of early Wisconsin settlers who, after setting up and getting comfortable in the Wisconsin summer, witnessed their first Midwest winter weather. What stopped them from packing up and heading south? I can now guess someone made eye contact and said “Can you believe this weather?” And the extended chatter that followed lasted until the answer was yes, they could believe it now, and it was time to collect berries, and fish, and run from bears or whatever. Wendy helped me understand that. Sure, the weather sucks, but that’s a small price to pay for the ability to connect with your community about how much it sucks. Exactly how much did it suck for you this morning? How much does it suck compared to other years? How hard is it for you to believe in how bad the weather has sucked this season? You answer some of these questions and suddenly you warm up to the idea of a collective embrace.

This weather SUCKS!

As far as who won our small-talk competition, no one gave it up. So after 42 minutes and two follow-up emails later, we decided we are getting married. Maybe next May or June, when the weather gets better. We’ll choose a date as soon as we’re done talking about construction on the beltline, which I assume will take a couple more weeks.